This is a story about art and how it was that two very different governments – the totalitarian Nazis and the liberal post war Dutch – came to imprison it, and for very different reasons. The story plays out over eight decades and features a bizarre cast of characters ranging from Pablo Picasso to Josef Goebbels. It begins with a lonely old man in a small Munich apartment who, for nearly 70 years, managed to keep a secret from the rest of the world, a very big secret indeed.

The man in question was Cornelius Gurlitt. In November 2013 the German magazine Focus reported that in the course of a routine customs investigation the authorities had discovered an estimated 1,500 pieces of art in his apartment. The list of artists whose work was to be found in this latter day Aladdin’s cave reads like a veritable Who’s Who of late 19th and early 20th century modern art. They included Auguste Rodin, Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse. While the provenance of many individual pieces in this strange haul remains a mystery, their general direction of travel has not been hard to discern.

Gurlitt is the son of the notorious art dealer and collector Hildebrand Gurlitt who, in the 1930s, was appointed as a buyer for the proposed but never realised Führermuseum. But modern art was not on the wish list for the vast museum complex which the Nazis intended to erect in praise of their political God. Adolf Hitler wasn’t very fond of modern art. He called its practitioners “incompetents, cheats and madmen”. To his mind, this electric movement, to which Germany and Austria had contributed so very much, was un-Germanic, Jewish and thoroughly bolshevist. This latter attribution was somewhat ironic given that Hitler’s fellow dictator Josef Stalin enthusiastically shared this hatred and, like his brother butcher in Moscow, Hitler persecuted it from the moment he came to power.

Exhibition 6From January 1933 modern art was driven systematically from German public and private life. Art deemed by the Nazis to be degenerate was confiscated and artists, academics and curators who championed it were purged from German centres of culture and replaced by newly-minted party members, many of whom were often former colleagues of the purged.

As the 1930s progressed the Nazi state found itself in the peculiar position of being in possession of one of the world’s largest collections of modern art. The vexed question of just what to do with it all fell within the purview of Josef Goebbels, the Minister for Public Enlightenment, who curiously was something of a fan of Expressionism, a fact which in 1937 didn’t prevent him from ordering a final sweep of Germany for any remaining unacceptable works of art.

What they chose to do next that is truly extraordinary. In that same year the Nazis decided to exhibit, in public, the very art they said was so dangerous to the moral health of the German people.

The exhibition of degenerate art was held in Munich between July and November 1937. Adolf Zeigler (a painter turned politician) was chosen to organise the project. Zeigler’s zeal for the whole affair certainly can’t be questioned as in less than two weeks he had the exhibition up and running in the city’s Institute of Archaeology. Like some dreadful Dadaist prank gone disastrously wrong, works by the likes of Chargall, Picasso, Kandinsky and Franz Marc were hung alongside those painted by psychotic patients from mental hospitals. Tame pressmen and party intellectuals lined up to publish rabid denunciations of both the art and the artists, and such public mockery was a constant theme of the exhibition throughout its four month run.

Quite why people went to see the exhibition will always be somewhat opaque. Some undoubtedly went to laugh and poke fun; some will have sought the thrill of the illicit or been impelled by transient social fashion; and some will simply have gone to gawp. But there must have been a few at least who went to say a silent, mournful farewell. Whatever the case, we do know that the exhibition attracted more than two million visitors, more than three times the number that saw the Great German Art Exhibition, a huge collection of officially approved art being held simultaneously in Berlin.

But why had the Nazis really mounted this strange, almost counter-intuitive exhibition? The followers of the crooked cross were not shy in providing the world with their usual philosophical justifications; a mishmash of various hatreds shot through with the standard paranoid nonsense about the Jews. One psychological interpretation for the Exhibition of Degenerate Art is that the Nazis feared art which they did not understand; they feared its power, its ability to subvert and to challenge. For anyone who loves art and cherishes the ideal of artistic freedom this is an especially seductive and comforting argument. It’s also dangerously wrong.

The proponents of modern art had long since developed a taste for deliberately cultivating an obsessive, esoteric distance between themselves and the rest of society. Consequently, unlike literature, the power of the movement to subvert or challenge anything outside the usual cultural enclaves was greatly reduced. While the ordinary German in the Strasse struggled to divine truth or meaning in its output the party men behind the pogrom, who were educated beings, knew well enough what they were looking at, and the grimly uncomfortable truth is that it simply didn’t frighten them. "Entartete 'Kunst'. Ausstellungsfhrer" zur Mnchener Ausstellung 1937.

The Nazis did not imprison this art because they feared it – if they had they would never have put it on display. Unlike the Soviets who instantly destroyed anything they thought might challenge their own cultural orthodoxy, the Nazis had such hubristic confidence in their ideology that they allowed this subversive collection to be seen, certain that their own beloved Great German Art Exhibition would completely eclipse their visual enemies.

No, this was not an exhibition of art, degenerate or otherwise; this was a concentration camp. Just as the Nazis were incarcerating their political enemies in the newly-built camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, in Munich it was concentrating and imprisoning art in its very own camp; a camp in which the canvas and marble inmates were forced to work in the service of National Socialism, just as millions of human beings would be in only a few short years.

The Nazis imprisoned this art because they loathed it. They imprisoned it because they realised they could put it to work for them. And they imprisoned it because they could.

Once the exhibition was over the Nazis began to sell their vast confiscated collections. The works were sold abroad with the proceeds going to the state, and the transactions were often handled on the behalf of the Nazis by Hildebrand Gurlitt who was one of only four dealers officially licensed to sell confiscated art works outside of Germany. This was a role he would later repeat on behalf of Herman Goering when he and several others were tasked with selling stolen French art treasures. But a great many stolen works of art disappeared entirely after Germany was defeated in 1945. Some of it at least must have been lost in the chaos and carnage that characterised the last months of the Third Reich, but there have always been suspicions that substantial quantities were hidden by its temporary custodians. Some 380 items in the Munich find have been identified as having been confiscated by the Nazis and the origins of the entire collection are currently under scrutiny. And according to the art historian examining the find, Meike Hoffmann, amid the illicit collection (estimated as being worth more than one billion Euros) there are as many as 300 pieces that have been identified as having been part of the Exhibition of Degenerate Art.

But what are we to make of the motivation behind the sins of the father and the sins of the son? Surely, no matter how rarefied their tastes, when looking for an explanation for their actions we need look no further than common or garden greed? Unfortunately, as so often in life, the truth is a little more problematic, especially as in this case Hildebrand Gurlitt was one quarter Jewish.

Gurlitt’s maternal grandmother was a Jew. In Germany in 1937 that meant two things. Firstly, under the Nuremberg Laws he was officially labelled a ‘quarter-Jew’. Secondly, as a ‘Mischling’ (German for crossbreed), at best he could expect to face extreme legalised discrimination in German society. At worst, there was the possibility of being sent to the camps. In fact Hildebrand Gurlitt had already had a taste of this in 1933 when, before they employed him, the Nazis had forced him from his job as the director of the Hamburg Art Association. Without Nazi patronage he would have found it impossible to find a job doing anything but the most menial of work. One can only imagine the severe pressure this placed upon both him and his family.

Exhibition psoter 2However, when given the chance to come clean at the end of the war, Hildebrand chose to compound his earlier crimes by telling his American interrogators (the famous Monuments Men) that most of the stock in his charge had been destroyed along with all his records in the allied bombing of Dresden. Gurlitt senior was adjudged to have been a victim of Nazi persecution and upon his release he resumed his career as an art dealer. The recent discovery in Munich has, of course, shown his story to be a lie, but quite why he lied, and why he chose to hold on to the cache of stolen art, is unclear. What is also unclear is just quite how he managed to hide from his Nazi masters the fact that eight years after he was supposed to have sold the pieces, from the 1937 exhibition, he still had so many of them in his possession.

Had he somehow convinced himself that he’d made the best of a bad situation and had in fact saved this art for future generations? Perhaps having lived through one tyranny he feared the arrival of another in the shape of the Red Army, now permanently camped just across the border in the newly created East Germany. Perhaps he nursed some deep psychological flaw, the need to hoard or the need to keep on keeping his secret, brought on by the pressure of the preceding years. Or perhaps he was simply just greedy after all. Whatever the case, after his death in a car crash in 1956 the collection and the sin was passed onto his son Cornelius.

Gurlitt junior does not appear to have enriched himself with his secret inheritance, at least not financially, and seems to have lived a quiet, almost monastic life in his Munich apartment. He did not draw a pension nor register for state healthcare and it seems that to meet his modest needs he very occasionally slipped across to Switzerland to sell one of the minor works. Perhaps over the years he imagined he was continuing the work of his late father, or perhaps his sin was indeed that of greed, but in this case greed for a beauty unshared. In any event he appears to be in denial about the reality of the situation and has publicly called for the return of what he calls his “only friends”. For the time being, he, like the rest of us, can only await further developments in the case.

If in imprisoning art the Nazis committed a sin of commission, it might be said of successive post-war Dutch governments that theirs was a sin of omission. Unlike the Nazis however their incarcerated stockpile did not come about as a result of wholesale theft, but as a direct consequence of wholesale largesse.

This strange affair has its origins in the depths of the Great Depression and the concern in the Netherlands that in such harsh times the proud tradition of Dutch art, stretching back through Mondrian and van Gogh to Rembrandt and Vermeer, might be interrupted or even ended. To combat this threat, in 1935 the Ministry of Social Affairs founded the Provident Fund for Artists to help artists and their families cope with economic hardship. In return, artists sometimes voluntarily donated some of their work to the fund.

During the war secret financial assistance was provided by the underground National Support Fund to help members of the cultural industries who had fallen on hard times as a direct result of their refusal to collaborate with the Nazi occupiers. And to the credit of the Dutch artistic community there was a considerable number of these cultural refuseniks, some of whom went on to play an active part in the resistance.

The Tower of Blue Horses by Franz Marc 1913 - in the Exhibition and very famous pic1945 brought liberation to the Netherlands and a chance to reshape a country badly scarred by war. During the occupation the Nazis had sought to compel Dutch artists of every hue to publicly support both their ideology and their presence in Holland. This had a profound effect upon the way in which the Dutch thought about culture and the arts, throwing into sharp relief the role both played in a free society. And so, in 1949, the Visual Arts Scheme was born.

Many in Holland had high hopes for the inititiave and in many ways it was a unique project, designed not only to provide economic relief to struggling artists but also to guarantee their social autonomy, thus strengthening liberal Dutch democracy. The conditions of eligibility were established by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the administration of the scheme was entrusted to local committees. In order to safeguard the future of the scheme a workfare model was adopted and the pre-war practice of artists voluntarily providing a work of art for financial assistance was formalised.

For an artist to qualify for assistance they had to be able to prove that they’d made a genuine (and unsuccessful) effort to earn their living as an artist in the free market. If they could prove this, and that they had no other source of income, then the local committee would purchase a work of art from them using state funds. The fund, or the BKR, was not intended to provide a permanent income for artists but rather was intended as a safety net, especially for the beginning and end of artistic careers. The available evidence would suggest that by and large this was indeed how it was used. However, the flaws in the scheme began to come to light very quickly, not least the fact that its designers had omitted any real long-term plan for the BKR or any proper form of financial oversight.

The local committees purchasing the art were not spending local money. The funding came from the national budget and, worse still, there was no limit placed on just how much could be spent. There was therefore no incentive for them to exercise restraint in either the amount of art they purchased or the numbers of artists they allowed onto the scheme. Every penny spent went into the local economy. As one might imagine the consequent negative effect on the quality of what was being purchased would bedevil the visual arts scheme throughout its life.

The number of applicants for the scheme grew steadily and in only a few years it was clear that the BKR was being overwhelmed. Both the Government and the local committees were increasingly desperate to divest themselves of their fast accumulating stockpile of publicly-owned art, hidden away in warehouses across the country. Attempts were made to release it on licence into the community and over the years this parole scheme for art took on many forms with works being loaned out on a vast scale to adorn the walls of government offices, local council buildings and not-for-profit organisations.

Exhibition 3But it wasn’t just officialdom sharing in all this cultural surplus. From quite early on ordinary Dutch citizens were able to get in on the act through the establishment of lending libraries for art. The initiative was started by the artist Pieter Kooistra who established the first of these in his own home. Soon every town had a ‘Kooistra’ and anyone within bicycling distance (yes, the official measure was actually bicycling distance – God bless the Dutch) could rent an artwork for fl. 2.50 a month. Eventually citizens could choose to pay a higher fee, in effect an art mortgage, which would eventually secure them outright ownership of the piece.

(This lending of art to the public was replicated in West Yorkshire only a few years later when in 1961 the Leeds Art Gallery lending scheme was established. Like its Dutch cousin this wholly admirable programme continues to flourish today and the scheme – the only one of its kind in Britain – now boasts more than 600 works and is still growing, allowing ordinary people from across Yorkshire to borrow a piece of art for as little as £4 a month.)

But still the art kept coming. Much of it was dubious quality so new ways to stem the flow had to be found. Rules were tightened and conditions were made stricter, although such measures were not imposed without resistance and in protest outraged Dutch artists occupied the National Museum, first in 1969 and then again in 1979. By the early 90s the writing was on wall for the BKR which now owned nearly 300,000 pieces of art, and in 1993 it was wound up, at least in its old format. Various subsidy schemes for artists would stagger on in a reduced form until the January 2012 but the golden age of the mass public purchase of art was over.

Strenuous efforts were made to push out into public view as much of the collection as possible by donating them to any organisation that would take them, and thousands of pieces were simply returned to the artists who had created them in the first place. But even so there remains today, in what is undeniably one of the world’s most liberal countries, the largest prison for art the world has ever seen. This facility sits just outside The Hague and covers an area the size of three football pitches, which is not surprising when you learn its home to a staggering 50,000 works of art, none of which are on display to the public.

If you were a work of art and you absolutely had to go to prison then this is the prison you’d choose; it’s spotless, climate-controlled and very Dutch. The reason for building it in the first place is also very Dutch, for the Dutch prison of art did not come about because the Dutch loathed or feared art, but rather because they loved it and feared its absence.

For the Nazis the road to imprisoning art was lined with hatred; for the Dutch it was paved with good intentions. The former was clearly despicable while the latter was sadly lamentable, but in both cases it would be wiser if in future it was a road less travelled. For those who love art the fact that two so diametrically-opposed political and social systems could produce such a similar result is a truly disturbing prospect, and one which we would all do well to contemplate, and to remember.

By Alfred Searls 


The 1937 Exhibition of Degenerate Art: 

The Monuments Men: 

If you live in Yorkshire and like the idea of borrowing a piece of art to hang on your wall at home then you’re in luck as Leeds Art Gallery has been lending art to people across the county since 1961. There’s no membership or joining fee, you pay for what you borrow. This is £4 per month for one artwork and then £2 per month for any additional works. Loans of artworks are for a minimum period of three months. Becoming a member is simple and you sign up in person at selection days, which are held four times a year. For more info: